By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) They are a team in the moment, in a sport in the moment.
Playoff hockey is all about the now more than the later, an effort to maximize the next shift so that whatever randomized chain of small events occurs is playing to your team’s advantage. Any effect on anything else is beside the point and of little concern until well after the fact, when there will be ample time to worry about it.
So it is to an even greater degree with the Blackhawks, who chase another Stanley Cup with the understanding that this roster is set for yet another overhaul when it ends, be it with another parade or not. The NHL salary cap is doing what it’s designed to do, but in more draconian fashion than anticipated due to only moderate revenue growth combining with the fall of the Canadian dollar.
Chicago general manager Stan Bowman is hardly surprised by this, knowing when he signed Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to their twin mega-deals last summer that he’d have to pare the team around them. Attempts to trade Patrick Sharp at the deadline this year fizzled, but his $6-million contract remains ripe for removal along with the $4 million per year owed to Bryan Bickell through 2017.
Which brings us right to the real story, the $6 million annually owed to goaltender Corey Crawford through 2019-’20. Crawford’s excellent regular season hasn’t prevented him from ceding the net — at least temporarily — to 26-year-old giant Scott Darling, whom the ‘Hawks signed to a two-year extension in February for one-tenth of Crawford’s money: $600,000 per season.
While it’s easy to put off big-picture concerns with the “hot goalie” trope, it doesn’t mean this can’t continue to grow into a larger issue with every solid game Darling plays, as he has now stopped 77 of the 79 shots he has seen since entering in relief of Crawford in Game 1 against Nashville.
This Blackhawks regime has a track record of not letting dollars stand in the way of decisions at this position in particular. Cristobal Huet was the unquestioned starter to begin 2009 and was making $5.6 million, but he was eventually supplanted by Antti Niemi going into their playoff run to the title. The very next year saw Chicago sign veteran Marty Turco for the job, only to eventually install Crawford.
What complicates this too is the touchy relationship the team’s management has had with Crawford, despite the financial commitment to him. His F-bomb laden speech at the 2013 championship celebration wasn’t well received by his bosses, and they were seething behind the scenes when he hurt himself earlier this year at a concert and missed three weeks of action.
Instead of covering for him by insisting it happened in practice or while exercising, the Blackhawks put him on blast – releasing official news of an “off-ice” occurrence and embarrassing him publicly by forcing him to face questions from the media about his dubious account of tripping on the stairs, while having to refuse comment on the role alcohol may have played. Sources within the organization indicated to 670 The Score at the time that the team had already been wary of his behavioral issues, and were it merely a first-time infraction, the club wouldn’t have dealt with it so harshly.
What’s interesting is that Darling himself is a recovering alcoholic whose desultory professional history isn’t the romantic story of an overlooked late bloomer emerging improbably from the hockey fringes, but instead a darker tale of a troubled soul. Darling was kicked off the team at the University of Maine for incidents related to drinking and continued partying while playing in the bush leagues, eventually even getting booted from the summer goal-tending clinic he attended in Boston before putting himself back together.
According to a detailed piece in The Hockey News, Darling then lost 40 pounds of beer weight, identified the social anxiety at the root of his problem and put himself back on the track once befitting a sixth-round NHL draftee.
And now he’s more in control of his future than ever — and possibly starting to create a conflicted dynamic for his team in the offseason to come. Crawford is reported to have some limited no-trade language in his deal, but it’s reasonable to think that Bowman will be exploring every possible option for complying with a cap expected to squeeze his team once again.
Though it’s early in the playoff grind, there’s already ample reason to imagine such scenarios for the Blackhawks, as their hot goalie could eventually lead to some cold decisions.